As Plane-ly Spoken has addressed on several occasions, one of the most serious pitfalls for participants in an NTSB investigation involves the unauthorized disclosure of information while the investigation is open.  Well, it has happened again, and the guilty party might surprise you.

This time, it was none other than the FAA who violated the Board’s non-disclosure rule.  The circumstances of the violation are a useful reminder that the rule brooks no exceptions.

According to the FAA, it received a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for information related to a March 13, 2014 accident in Philadelphia.  In response to the request, the FAA released, among other things, an internal draft report.  The NTSB subsequently learned of the disclosure, and called out the FAA for the error, expressing “strong concern” for the breach of the rules.

In its press release, the NTSB stated that the entire investigative process is premised on “full participation and technical assistance by the parties . . . .”  The NTSB warned that any unauthorized disclosure of information while the investigation is underway “may enable that party to influence the public perception of the investigation, and undercut the fairness of the process.”  In addition to the effect on the public’s trust, leaks from an active investigation can create mistrust among the parties to the investigation, and may cause one party to hold back for fear that another party might “poison the well” with partial information that harms its reputation.

As we have said in the past, there may be times when a party to an investigation feels that it has no choice but to talk about an accident publicly to protect itself from misinformation in the media.  That decision, which should not be taken lightly, requires that the party withdraw from the investigation.  The one thing it can’t do; is leak, and then try to stay on the “inside” and continue to participate in the process.

What this incident highlights is that even a sophisticated aviation organization like the FAA, which should know the rules and requirements better than anyone, can still make a serious mistake when navigating the NTSB process.  For those who are going through an investigation for the first time, experienced guidance can save you from a costly mistake.

(Originally posted February 9, 2105)